The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced. The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World), was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.
Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law. Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason). Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.
As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seems to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world. Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.
Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.
Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15). The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.
In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.
The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.
It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.